Finding Opportunity in Disaster: GSD team wins Toyo University academic competition

A GSD team’s hopeful vision of a sustainable and resilient future for the Tohoku region of Japan—devastated by earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011—has earned first prize in Toyo University’s Tohoku Recovery invitational academic competition. Maria Ignacia Arrasate (MDes), Elise Baudon (MUP), Natalia Gaerlan (MUP), Karina Gilbert (MAUD) and Trevor Johnson (MUP) collaborated on a team led by Kristen Hunter (DDes) and advised by Jerold Kayden, professor of urban planning and design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. They will be traveling to Japan in February to receive the $10,000 award for their project “Here Today, Here Tomorrow.” A team from the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy of Bulgaria won second prize, and a team from the University of Queensland School of Architecture took third prize.

Tohoku’s recovery from the triple disaster has faltered because of vulnerabilities stemming from an aging and shrinking population, sluggish economy and crumbling infrastructure. Because the competition was framed as a planning and policy problem rather than a physical design challenge, the interdisciplinary team included largely urban planning, urban design, architecture, and landscape architecture expertise.  Recognizing that one or two grand physical projects would not address the challenges facing the region, team members applied themselves to measures that would stem outmigration by enhancing social infrastructure and promoting sustainable economic development.

They identified opportunities for strategic interventions in health, medical education, energy and industry, fishing and agriculture, tourism and marketing, housing and transportation. Significantly, they proposed creation of a new Regional Development Agency and described a framework for funding the revitalization through public-private partnerships and financial instruments. As explained in their winning proposal, “The new Tohoku must be positioned not only to withstand future earthquakes and tsunamis, but also other, perhaps less dramatic, demographic, economic, and environmental challenges.”

During their weeklong trip to Japan the GSD students will meet with government officials and business leaders and tour the affected area. Kristen Hunter explained, “During the research phase of the competition, we encountered significant difficulty in obtaining up-to-date spatial and statistical data on conditions along the Sanriku coast, so the trip offers an invaluable opportunity to get firsthand accounts of the ongoing challenges faced by residents of the Tohoku region and those involved in regional rebuilding efforts.” At the conclusion of the formal itinerary, they will stay in Tokyo to collaborate with Toyo University faculty and students on adapting their proposal into an actionable plan for Japan’s national and prefectural governments.

Of the team experience, Hunter said, “Throughout, we maintained a highly collaborative approach in which each member of the team not only contributed established expertise, but also developed new competencies in an effort to develop implementable solutions. In my time at the GSD I have worked with many teams, but none that were as congenial or maintained such a high degree of enthusiasm and commitment throughout.”

Kayden had a similar takeaway. “This team worked together beautifully; I’d like to bottle it for all student team experiences,” he said.

Read the winning plan “Here Today, Here Tomorrow.”

Read a Harvard Gazette account of the team’s trip to Japan to receive the award, tour the site and plan the next phase of action.